The Office of the Public Protector is facing budget cuts that threaten to debilitate the institution due to the economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The office is currently investigating Covid-19 related corruption worth an estimated R4 billion.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and her management team appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Justice on Thursday evening to discuss the office’s performance in the fourth quarter of the 2019-20 financial year and the first quarter of the 2020-21 financial year.
“One of the difficulties we face as an institution is our dwindling resources. We have not been immune to the budget cuts that are taking place across the board as a direct result of the contraction of our economy. More budget cuts have been forecast for the financial years ahead,” Mkhwebane told the committee.
She said this provided more reason to implore state organs to make an effort to establish in-house complaint units.
“This will significantly reduce the number of complaints we receive, thereby freeing investigators’ hands to focus on complex matters and improve on the quality of investigations. What’s more, this could significantly reduce service delivery protests – if properly implemented.”
She said it would result in the Public Protector not having to take over the work that public servants were already being paid to perform.
For the current financial year, the proposed budget cut was R16 million of its cost of employment budget, which it would be able to absorb in this year.
But it was the cuts over the medium term which were concerning.
The proposed budget cuts amount to R209.4 million between the 2020-21 and 2023-24 financial years, with the bulk of this cut coming from the cost of employment budget, which amounts to R160.6 million between 2020-21 and 2022-23.
The budget cut for 2020-21 was confirmed, but the cuts from 2021-22 onwards still had to be confirmed by the National Treasury.
If budget reductions were implemented, the Public Protector would significantly overspend on the cost of employment, acting chief financial officer Tshiamo Senosi said.
“Over the past three years, PPSA struggled to stay afloat and had to approach the Department of Justice each year for financial assistance in order to honour its liabilities,” he said.
“The PPSA’s budget allocation is already constrained as it only covers personnel and contractual obligations which the institution has for essential services.”
The Public Protector’s work was labour intensive, as investigators were needed to conduct investigations. Already, previously vacated posts had not been filled and the entity had a 38% vacancy rate.
“The entity cannot absorb any further cuts than what has been cut from previous years.”
Mkhwebane told the committee her office had received 1 602 Covid-19 related complaints since the beginning of the lockdown.”The bulk of these matters relate to the R350-a-month special social relief of distress grant, while the rest have to do with personal protective equipment procurement irregularities, which have financial implications of an estimated R4 billion for the public purse.”
She said they had also embarked on their own initiative to investigate the state of the country’s healthcare system and basic education.
“The investigation was prompted by public outcry and media reports as a result of the pandemic. To this end, we visited hospitals and schools in various provinces to establish, among other things, how they are coping with the devastation brought about by Covid-19 and the general state of the facilities in respect of whether they are able to render services effectively and efficiently to the public of the Republic. We will soon publish reports on our findings and observations,” she said.
In 2019-20, it achieved 79% of its targets.
“This has been a steady climb when one considers the fact that our performance in 2017-18 was at an underwhelming 50%,” Mkhwebane said.
In the first quarter of 2020-21, the office only achieved 70% of its targets.
The ANC contingent on the committee was generally pleased with this performance.
The committee was, however, concerned about the looming budget cut.
Committee chairperson Bulelani Magwanishe said the committee took a principled decision not to support budget cuts, and it was quite clear that it would cripple the organization.
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